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  • Writer's pictureDavid Lloyd

Is local online radio the future?

Updated: Sep 10, 2020

One of the great things about online stations is you have a really good handle on how many people are listening.

That can also be a bad thing.

Of course, it’s always been possible that some small FM/DAB stations had no-one listening either at times - but you never quite knew.

Given the low barriers to entry, a huge number of online radio stations now exist around the World, providing all manner of services. Just like podcasts or books, anyone can launch them. Some will be good – many poor. Some will be hugely popular - many will attract negligible audiences.

On my regular listening repertoire is an online station with IDs ending with the glorious lush, seven-voice accapella: ‘Planet Earth’. That’s quite a TSA.

Back home, a few operators are launching online stations, prompted by the disappearance of local brands. Will they succeed?

It depends what success is.

If you enjoy doing it – and some listeners derive value from it - that’s a success. Sorted.

But - will you replace the station that was there before? The tech is easy. Never before has it been quite so affordable to create a radio station that sounds and looks the part. Is your effort a gesture, or will it genuinely work?

The challenges are staffing, transmission, winning an audience - and paying the bills.

On staffing - If run by passionate volunteers, you can produce an impressive product. Much hospital, student and community radio depends on goodwill from volunteers – and I’ve known great work from each of those sectors. But it relies on the right people doing great work – not just on day one – but day-in and day-out. That’s a hell of a commitment. Your small team may be committed but they have to put bread on the table too. And - from my experience of running a couple of voluntary organisations, I found it demands more skill than running Tesco. I suspect you’ll find, on some days, you'll feel very alone.

On transmission - Online can be cheap and easy - but most of those who want a replacement for their old favourite will look first on their traditional radio set – and you are not there. Three quarters of radio listeners don’t listen online – and those who do probably do not use it for all their listening. Despite its scale and resource, Apple has not managed to make significant inroads to dominate the ‘radio’ space. The future will be different, but we are not yet there. Listeners don't like fiddling about.

Other platforms cost appreciable sums. Small scale DAB will reduce those sums and make DAB more affordable, alongside making the competitive environment tougher – and no guarantee that you’re the only ones in town with a bright idea.

On winning an audience - It gets tougher each day – not least if you are not on the same platforms as everyone else. There is a window of opportunity if a station closes down/changes substantially – and the PR momentum can be seized. But – do be realistic. We know that listeners are notoriously and puzzlingly habitual to their old ‘channel’, however deviant it becomes. Let’s accept too that: a) some listeners will be fine with the network service that’s replaced their old favourite; b) some people will think it’s better; c) some people won't be arsed either way; and d) some won’t notice it's even changed. And, unless you are replacing a station which had a 50% reach, most people in your area were not listening to it anyway. Believe me, I've lost sleep over all this.

Of the audience you can win - what do they want?

Yes, you’ll have some of the things they might be missing – just as Radio X had with Moyles and Virgin with Evans - but even with that talent, the audiences at their new homes (notwithstanding platform availability) are (understandably) a fraction of what they were. Don’t leave it to chance – market like hell. Seize the support from those in your town to promote your service. It's a small area - you should be able to manage it.

So – if your service is not quite as well executed as it was by the full-time team of paid staff of the outgoing station – and not as easily available - nor as well known - what’s the real scale of your likely audience? Be realistic.

This fits with my general thinking on local radio. If your patch is a small proud one, then your chances of success are higher.

I write as ever, with all my hats on from commercial radio to BBC radio; running hospital radio to streaming the easy listening (and excellent!) Serenade Radio, just for fun.

I feel the passion. I recognise the challenges.

Paying the bills - Can you make a business out of it, maybe seeded with some crowdfunding – and thus pay some limited staff and better platforms? Are there innovative partnerships you can deliver? I can see that being modestly possible - where it is well executed. An interesting parallel is hyper local ‘press'/online. As big city press titles fall, small online ones are popping up. They are not emulating their fallen brethren; they are carving out new niches – with some considerable success. Beware though, many smaller local commercial radio stations were losing money even with their heritage, relatively large audiences and probably a cost-efficient head office to lean on. There's a reason why small radio stations are sold to bigger ones. Selling ads is tough - even more so now.

If I were launching a local initiative, I think I’d start by asking myself exactly what my listeners are missing now their old choice has gone – and what do they really want that they cannot find elsewhere. In some markets, that’s possibly a better starting point than trying to recreate what was there before. People say they like the concept of local radio - but probe whether they really like it - and what they really mean by it. Don't design your station by anger - design by audience understanding.

Then – how is that delivered – is it ‘a radio station’? If it is, how is it programmed? Does it need to be full- time? Does it need to be a music radio station? How different should it actually be from the outgoing station? What can you do even better? Are you going to win the battle to replace the P1 status the outgoing station owned – or, in practice, will you be used differently by listeners? If the latter - address that appetite.

You are not going to win by just saying ‘we are local’. You’ve got to be local - in a patch that’s actually bothered about it - if that is to be your USP. It takes a real skill. Being local is about relevant local content rather than where your PC happens to be.

Or is it a weekly/daily podcast? With the latter solution, you can be the only player in town, rather than immediately one of 50 radio stations. A great local podcast might be better than a me-too radio station. I find it difficult to imagine that, in the future, each area will not have its own leading local podcast and there are some fine examples already. Actually, a national chain of local outlets will probably emerge under one umbrella brand…

And, in line with my general thinking on the future of local radio, if people are mounting conscientious efforts with high quality online local news/audio/radio content then they should also be able to bid for any public funding and concessions (copyright fees etc) to support it. That should be offered on the worth of the content and audience generated - not the platform on which it is 'broadcast'.

The audio world is changing quickly. You could be on the crest of the wave. And good luck. The UK needs powerful major radio networks - and it can also be a home for thriving local audio initiatives, fashioned in the right way.

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